Nursing Book Club

The Black Angels by Maria Smilios

The Untold Story of the Nurses Who Helped Cure Tuberculosis

Cover of the book Black Angels

In 2015, Maria Smilios was a biomedical editor at Springer Publishing when she stumbled upon the statement, “The cure for tuberculosis was found at Sea View Hospital in Staten Island.”

Intrigued, Smilios spent seven years researching the full story of Sea View, and discovered the Black nurses, called “Black Angels,” who played a pivotal role in the hospital’s work. The result is an amazing history of an eventful period for nursing, race relations, disease pathology, and the quest to cure TB.

At the turn of the last century, 10,000 people a year were dying of tuberculosis in New York City alone. Many languished with fevers or underwent grisly medical procedures in hopes of stopping the advance of the disease. On average, patients suffered for 270 days before their deaths.

In an effort to limit the spread of the disease, the New York City health commissioner proposed treating all of the city’s tuberculosis patients in a single hospital rather than in multiple tuberculosis wards. The result was Sea View Hospital on Staten Island, built in 1914, which eventually grew to eight buildings, plus a residence for staff nurses.

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By the 1920s, the annual TB death rate dropped by half. However, the sickest patients still remained at Sea View for years, and staff retention was a problem. Nurses avoided Sea View out of fear of catching the disease themselves.

Recruiting in the Deep South

In 1929, the commissioner of health had the idea of advertising in the Deep South for Black nurses, who were often barred from other hospitals. (Just four of the 29 hospitals in New York City would hire Black nurses.)

The pay Sea View offered Black nurses was only about three-fourths of what the hospital’s white nurses earned, but employment included room and board, nursing education, and on-the-job training, as well as relief from the Jim Crow discrimination they were experiencing at home.

However, with just 150 Black nurses for 12,500 patients, conditions were difficult, and the risks were high.

Nurses at the Center

The book follows several nurses, including Edna Sutton, from Savannah, Ga., who eventually convinced her sister and her niece to come to Sea View for training. The niece, Virginia Allen, is now in her 90s and believes she is the last surviving Black Angel. (She currently lives in the former hospital’s restored nursing residence.)

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The period this book chronicles — from 1929 through the 1950s — includes the Harlem Renaissance, race riots, the Depression, and the eventual discovery of antibiotics that could cure tuberculosis.

We don’t hear as much about tuberculosis these days, but it still kills about 1.5 million people a year worldwide. In my public health career, I did DOT (directly observed therapy) for TB, going out to watch patients take the necessary cocktail of drugs so I could run the sputum samples to the nearby public hospital.

The Black Angels is an engrossing tale of public health, medical progress, and the unsung role of Black women in both. Better still, by focusing on stories like Edna Sutton and Virginia Allen’s, Smilios keeps nursing squarely at the center.

The Black Angels: The Untold Story of the Nurses Who Helped Cure Tuberculosis by Maria Smilios. (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2023)

CHRISTINE CONTILLO, RN, BSN, PHN, is a public health nurse with more than 40 years of experience, ranging from infants to geriatrics.

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